The news story on below-cost sales in the national forests {"Tallying the Costs of Logging National Forests," front page, Oct. 20} paid only lip service to the most critical element in the below-cost sale dilemma: the unfair apportionment of costs to the timber sale program.

Congress is schizophrenic on this: On the one hand it requires multiple use of the forests, meaning they must supply not just commodities such as minerals, oil and gas, grazing and timber, but environmental benefits such as recreation and protection of endangered species. On the other hand, it fails to apportion the cost of environmental benefits, charging almost everything against commodity production such as timber.

Example: In the Superior National Forest of Minnesota, the Forest Service must manage for the survival of an endangered species, the gray wolf. The clear-cutting of low-value aspen stands creates a habitat for small mammals that make up the wolf's prey, thus helping to ensure its survival. Most of these aspen sales lose money, but below-cost timber management plays an integral part in the wolf's recovery.

It is inconsistent to ask for profitability in the Forest Service's timber program without requiring the same standard of nontimber resource programs or at least accounting for the costs to the timber program resulting from these other objectives.

Meanwhile, Sen. Wyche Fowler's (D-Ga.) plan to lower sales costs by reducing the road-building appropriation by $100 million will result in thousands of agency layoffs and throw the whole national forest administration into chaos.

Indeed, that's just what the senator wants, for the road program has become a surrogate for the larger question of halting timber harvests on national forests. Preservationist groups propose reductions in the road program to circumvent unpalatable decisions reached through a public planning process. DAVID FORD Vice President, Public Timber Council National Forest Products Association Washington